When it Comes to Spending Time With Kids, Quantity Doesn’t Matter


Moms shouldn’t worry about counting the minutes spent with their little ones, a new study finds. Photo by Getty Images.

For any mother who has ever felt a stab of guilt over not spending enough time with her child (and that’s every mom, right?), listen up: It doesn’t matter. That’s according to a groundbreaking new study, to be published in April in the Journal of Marriage and Family, which found no relationship between the behavior, academic achievements, or emotional wellbeing of a child aged 3 to 11 and the amount of time spent with a parent — particularly mom.

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“There were no statistically significant associations between maternal time…and any child outcome,” concludes the study, “Does the Amount of Time Mothers Spend With Children or Adolescents Matter?” The findings even surprised the three researchers, including Kathleen Denny of the University of Maryland’s Department of Sociology. “The assumption that more time with mother has to be better for children is so ingrained, even among sociologists, so I did expect to find some relationship,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “But we couldn’t find any empirical data to support that.” And, said lead author Melissa Milkie of the University of Toronto to the Washington Post, “I was really surprised.”

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The study did acknowledge throughout the assumption that quantity of time is crucial. “Mothers’ time is thought to be especially important, even irreplaceable, for the well-being of children,” it notes. “Indeed, this ideology of intensive mothering — the belief that the proper development of children requires mothers lavishing large amounts of time and energy on offspring — is pervasive in American culture, is central to the spirited debates over whether maternal employment harms children, and is embodied in the ‘Mommy Wars,’ an alleged dispute between homemaker and employed mothers in which the former are said to accuse the latter of being selfish and harming children by being away from the home too often.”

The researchers’ methodology was to look at the time diaries of a nationally representative sample of children over time, when they were between the ages of 3 and 11 in 1997, and again in 2002, when the children were between the ages of 12 and 17. The focus was on both “engaged” time, when parents and kids were interacting, and “accessible” time, when parents were simply present.

The amount of time spent did matter a bit more for the adolescents, in terms of keeping down instances of delinquent behavior. And with kids of all ages, lots of time spent with mom can make an impact — but in negative ways, if the parent is stressed or guilt-ridden during that time together. “We found consistently that mothers’ distress is related to poor outcomes for their children,” including behavioral and emotional problems and “even lower math scores,” another researcher on this study, Kei Nomaguchi of Bowling Green State University, told the Washington Post.

And regarding parents who are physically present but busy texting friends or checking Facebook? That’s a situation deserving of research next, Milkie tells Yahoo Parenting. “A future study should look at child-parent time when kids or parents are ‘checked out’ on phones and such — because that is an important new area — our data are older than that when cell phones and screens were so prevalent.”

So where does the notion of time spent with mom as crucial come from in the first place? As Milkie notes, “There are pressures from a competitive, global economy that is full of uncertainty for a child’s future, that push mothers to believe it is their individual responsibility to ensure each child turns out as ‘successful.’ Yet,” she says, “there are few supports for parents.” Denny speculates that the belief comes from a societal reaction to women’s rising participation in the labor force, and a natural “cultural resistance to it.”

And it’s a resistance that’s alive and well, Denny says, noting that she and her fellow researchers have already been facing backlash about their findings, with some commenters on the Washington Post story calling the study “misleading,” “apologist,” a “veiled” criticism of stay-at-home moms, and a new excuse to leave your kids in the dust to raise themselves.

But, she notes, “I don’t think the takeaway should be to spend as little time with your children as possible.” While this study didn’t examine quality of time spent together, says Denny, plenty of others already have, finding important links between parents and kids doing everything from reading to dining together. “Just don’t worry so much about the amount of time,” she says. “It’s not so much about meeting a threshold, but what you do when you are together.”

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